Pitches and heat a test for SA seamers - Donald
When Allan Donald was last in the UAE, Dubai did not have a single building in the top 50 skyscrapers in the world. It also did not have a metro service, nor did it host international cricket. In 1996, Sharjah was where it all happened.
Donald was a member of the touring squad that played in the Pepsi Cup that year. He was not included in the starting XI for any of the matches so it's hardly a surprise he does not seem to remember much about the place. Instead, it makes him think of somewhere else, where he played two Tests in 1997 and where he gained experience that will come in handy for South Africa's bowlers on this tour.
"The pitches here remind me a lot of the wickets when we played in Pakistan," he said. And there, he recalls, things were not easy for fast men. "As a quick bowler. when times are tough, you have to very imaginative and you've got to be gutsy, Most importantly, the ball has to reverse."
For that reason, Donald, South Africa's bowling coach, believes South Africa will rely on Dale Steyn even more than usual. "There is no one better than him when there is an end open and when he steps up and changes gears. There is no-one better at running through a team than he is," Donald said.
When Steyn last played for South Africa, he endured an injury-riddled time at Champions Trophy in June but has since recovered from five lingering issues. Like many of the players who've had a break, Donald said the time off will have reinvigorated Steyn and made him even more determined. "He is as fresh as I have seen him. He has dealt with his niggles. He is absolutely raring to go," he said. "He is very eager and hungry to make a big impact on this series," Donald said.
With conditions set to provide a challenge to the seamers, Donald still believes the pace barrage, led by Steyn, can have an effect if they stick to a few basic principles. "The new ball will be massive," he said. "When we played in Pakistan, Bob Woolmer taught us that the best chance of getting wickets was upfront because the ball scuffs up a lot quicker so we had to make batsmen play a lot more in the first 20 overs," he said. "We have to figure out how to put a dent in the top order."
South Africa will approach Pakistan with aggression, not just upfront, but throughout the innings. "Lines have got to be straighter, we've got to hit the pitch really hard, bowl a bit fuller than normal and be prepared to sacrifice a few runs. You have to be smart because this is not a place where you can bowl back of length and expect results," he said. "Patience and discipline will be key."
Donald expects South Africa's bowlers to do all of that in temperatures that will soar close to 40 degrees while they are in the field, and he realises it is a big ask. "The extreme heat is going to be testing for us in our fitness and endurance," he admitted. "But there are no excuses. We know what standards we set for ourselves as No.1.team and if we have a bad session, there will be no blaming the conditions and the pitches."
That means the South African bowlers' biggest battle, although it would appear to be physical, is actually going to be mental. "This is the one series which will really test us as a unit because the mental intensity is going to be a big thing," Donald said.
In preparation, South Africa held a meeting on Sunday afternoon to discuss the importance of being psychologically strong enough. "We can't afford not hitting the ground running. Yesterday, Graeme and Russell [Domingo] chatted about how important it is that we don't play catch up cricket."
South Africa have been slow starters in the past but they have managed not to let it trip them up recently. In England, they appeared lethargic on day one of the Oval Test last year before going on to win the match and the series. Australia wore the bowlers down for the better parts of the Brisbane Test in November last year and if not for a day lost to rain, may have been able to win the match but it was South Africa who triumphed at the end of the series in Perth.
Gary Kirsten helped them understand that even if a session does not go their way, the possibility to go for the kill could still remain. Donald said the coach Domingo has continued to enforce the same ideas.
"We spoke about the team culture yesterday and what it means to the players," he said. "The guys have really taken to Russell in a short space of time. For us it's business as usual." And to enforce that motto, Donald need only refer to the country the team is in, where, 17 years since he was last here, business is the driving force behind all the changes he continues to marvel at.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent